Research

“Missionary-Minded: American Evangelicals and Power in a Postcolonial World” traces how changes to global missionary work shaped American evangelicals’ understandings of themselves and their growing national and international influence in the second half of the twentieth century. Missionary work has long been a framework through which white actors tried to save and develop those whom they perceived to be others — racial others, cultural others, religious others, or moral others. This project asks how changes to that framework produced new lessons about race, diversity, and power for white evangelicals back in the US. American evangelicals became the majority of the world’s Protestant missionaries and built some of the world’s largest and wealthiest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the mid- and late twentieth century, and this project draws on never-before-seen sources to examine those transnational actors and their impact. By analyzing evangelicals’ global work and its effects on American society, this research breaks new ground in the studies of decolonization, American international influence, and US religion and politics.

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Project Overview:

Missionaries have always been a part of the story of colonialism, but they largely disappear from the historical narrative after colonialism’s story ends in the mid-twentieth century. This is an enormous omission, because missionaries did not disappear during the twentieth century; rather, they grew rapidly in number and influence, and American evangelicals became the front-runners in this global growth. Today two million Americans serve as missionaries around the world each year, and the more than 1000 evangelical groups that send them have a combined annual budget of over ten billion dollars. These are the biggest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the world, and their story is largely untold. This project uses never-before-seen records from some of the largest American evangelical missionary organizations not just to write these powerful NGOs back into history, but to show how their global networks linked political and cultural shifts in the Global South with those in the US during the mid- and late twentieth century.

This study demonstrates that participation in global missions shaped how American evangelicals understood themselves and their place in the world. US evangelicals became the majority of the world’s Protestant missionaries in the decades after World War II, and during the same period, anticolonial revolutions swept the Global South and empowered people of color in missionized communities to condemn missionaries’ longstanding complicity in oppressive racial and cultural hierarchies. This set up a global clash between increasing numbers of conservative American missionaries and increasingly emboldened communities that challenged those missionaries’ presence, methods, and theology. As these conflicts unfolded, American missionaries wrote and traveled home to the US and instructed evangelical congregations about what was happening on the mission field and what those global lessons meant for white Christians back in the US. Missionaries most taught white American evangelicals how to understand themselves as the powerful and benevolent members of an international Christian community, how to embrace diversity while retaining institutional whiteness in that community, and how to seize the responsibility for everyone else’s salvation. These lessons influenced the ways that white evangelicals responded to and tried to control the growing power of minoritized communities in American society and politics in the late twentieth century.

Project Significance:

This project makes a major contribution to the studies of decolonization, American international influence, and US religion and politics. Scholars have begun to analyze how decolonization transformed Western hegemony by removing state actors while allowing non-state actors such as international NGOs and humanitarian groups to impose stratified power relationships across the Global South. This study expands that literature by examining the ways American evangelical missionaries rearticulated Western hegemony in a postcolonial era. American evangelicals became the majority of global missionaries after World War II, amid anticolonial revolutions, and they replicated structures and ideologies of Western superiority in their mission programs and philosophies.

This project also breaks new ground within the study of American international influence by expanding how that literature features religious actors. While historians have demonstrated missionaries’ influence on American imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholars of US global power in the post-World War II era largely have ignored religion. This study reveals the significant ways that religious actors extended American cultural and social hegemony during the second half of the twentieth century. American evangelicals saw themselves as powerful global actors with a mandate to influence the world, and the rising prosperity of middle-class US whites in the decades after World War II funded the fastest-growing and then largest missionary enterprise in the world.

Additionally, this project provides an original contribution to histories of religion and politics in the US by highlighting the importance of transnational narratives and the experiences of everyday actors. Most scholarship about the rise of the New Christian Right focuses on the domestic actors and forces that brought about the religiopolitical changes of the mid- and late twentieth century. This study reveals that those changes emerged not just out of national processes but also from profoundly transnational ones. In addition, the history of modern American religion and politics focuses largely on organization leaders, media personalities, and political officials. While that story of elite powerbrokers and their networks is important, equally crucial is the story of local people who filled pews, voting booths, or, in this case, mission stations around the world. This study highlights the voices and experiences of rank-and-file missionaries to offer a clearer picture of the everyday implications of broad religiopolitical changes and of the grassroots globalization of the late twentieth century. In these ways, this project has the capacity to alter how we understand the cultural and political landscape of the US and the extension of American influence around the world in the mid- and late twentieth century.